August 17, 2016
After a tough couple of weeks and tanking in the polls, Donald Trump announced another campaign shakeup, promoting Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager and Steve Bannon to chief executive. This move is undoubtedly one of weakness, given the fact that it’s the second time in under two months that there’s been major change at high levels in the Trump campaign. It’s difficult to imagine, after all, President Trump shuffling around his cabinet every couple of months when things don’t seem to be going his way, and seems to ignore the fact that the biggest problem with the campaign seems to be the candidate’s inability to stay on message. However, this in and of itself may not be all that concerning within the Republican ranks, since many Republicans don’t want Trump to win in the first place. What should be really scary to Republicans is the very real possibility that Trump costs Republicans the Senate, and gives President Clinton free rein to appoint whomever she wants to the Supreme Court.
Though, to a degree, Trump is his own island of toxicity, there has to be a tipping point where Trump would lose by so much it would inevitably cost a vulnerable Republican their Senate seat. This number will certainly vary from state to state, but the fundamental question is the same in each. How much does Donald Trump need to lose by before a given Senate candidate loses as well? In trying to figure out where this magic number may fall, there are two factors that need to be considered for each candidate. The first is the cushion that any given Senate candidate has over Trump to begin with. The second is the correlation between a change in Trump’s share of the vote and the share of the vote for the Senate candidate.
The cushion is the more straightforward and measurable of these two factors. In a number of states with competitive Senate races, the Republican candidate is running ahead of Donald Trump. For example, in Pennsylvania, Toomey is about eight points ahead of Trump in the polls, and in Florida, Rubio is about ten points ahead of where Trump is polling. As Trump’s poll numbers have worsened through August, the cushion has remained consistent, which leaves two critical questions regarding the cushion to be answered as November draws nears. The first is will the cushion hold, or will partisan voting habits overtake it? I suspect that we’re already seeing the latter happen in Illinois, where Kirk’s Trump cushion has shrunk from seventeen to thirteen points, but will the same happen in states with a lighter hue of blue? The second question is simply whether Trump will lose by so much that any cushion a candidate may have won’t be enough to save them.
The correlation between a change in Trump’s share of the vote and the share of any given candidate is more complicated and less measurable, especially given the unconventionality of Trump as a Republican candidate and the unprecedented distance some of the candidates have put between themselves and their party’s nominee. Normally, I would expect the relationship to be pretty direct, especially in this partisan day and age, with a one-point drop for Trump resulting in a one-point drop for the Republican Senate candidate. Unfortunately for Republicans at this moment, the fact that the cushion their Senate candidates have on Trump has remained relatively steady as Trump’s numbers have declined suggests this may also be the case this year. If this is so, then the only way for the GOP to keep the Senate is for Trump to make the race close enough that their cushion can put them over the top.
It is important to note, however, that this year is not like most years. Specifically, you have a Republican nominee who strays pretty far from the Republican brand, and a number of Senate candidates who have been distant, or, in the cases of Kirk and Toomey, downright hostile to their nominee. Therefore, we can’t necessarily take it for granted that Trump’s numbers will be tied as closely to the numbers of Senate candidates as we would expect in a more ordinary year with a more conventional candidate.
The most interesting strategic question for Senate candidates is whether or not there is anything they can do to untie their fate from that of Trump’s, for example, by criticizing or downright disavowing him. Here, though, Senate candidates have a calculated risk to take. Given the fact that many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are not loyal Republican voters, in trying to convince Clinton supporting centrists to split their tickets, they may end up driving Trump voters to split theirs. Either way, it is clear that, if Trump continues to decline or suffers a big loss, it will hurt the Republicans’ chance to hold the Senate. The only question is, by how much?